Sunday, 19 December 2010

Puss in Boots - a new look at the Pantomime story.

Puss in Boots.

The Pantomime season is upon us once more.

 [I digress, but recently I found an American relative by marriage had no idea what a pantomime was. So for those whose culture is sensible and where men don’t dress up as women and shout ‘He’s behind you’ from the stage, a pantomime is a traditional tale given a modern twist, peppered with jokes and songs…and oh yes, men dressed up as women.]
As a child I remember a Christmas treat of being taken to the London Palladian to see ‘Puss in Boots.’ This is a version of the story of a poor boy, Dick Whittington. He heard rumours that London was paved with gold and gathered all his possessions into a spotted handkerchief and, along with his pet cat Puss, went to the city where the cat helped him make his fortune.

Dick Whittington had often heard
The curious story told.
That far fam’d London’s brilliant streets
Were paved with sheets of gold.’

But this is more than just a story. There was a real Dick Whittington (1358 – 1423), the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, and he did indeed become Lord Mayor of London three times, as told in the pantomime.

‘Poor Dick ran away,
Four miles he ran, then wearied much,
He sat him on a stone,
And heard the merry bells of Bow
Speak to him in this tone –
Turn agin Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London.’

So, you might well ask, how did the cat make Dick his fortune?
The story suggestion is that Dick sold poor Puss to the King of Barbary, earning a fortune which he then invested.

Meanwhile puss sail’d across the seas,
Unto the Moorish Court,
And to the palace of the King,
The merchant Pussy brought.
For that poor King no rest enjoy’d
All through the rats and mice,
They swept the food from off his board –
Puss killed them in a trice.’

This may not be as far fetched as it seems because there was a regular trade in good British mousing cats, sent to foreign climes to free them of vermin. For example, an advertisement in 1857 offers to buy  live cats to export to New Zealand…and of course not forgetting the generous export of a ship load of cats to St Helena, to free Napoleon (who was terrified of cats!) from a plague of rats.

The King gave him heaps of gold,
For an animal so rare.’

But a more likely explanation is that the ‘Cats’ referred to in the Whittington story were a type of sailing vessel designed for shipping coal. These ‘Cats’ plyed a profitable trade and it is highly likely that Dick Whittington earned his wealth from some canny investments in the shipping trade transporting coal!


‘For Whittington was thrice Lord Major
In great King Henry’s reign.’

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